We were connecting with the ship from the optional Paris Extension. Just as our bus was about to reach the border of Belgium, our guide came to our seats and broke the bad news that we had left our passports and credit cards in our hotel safe. As the safe is hidden by the same door that covers the mini bar, we missed it when checking out.
This incident helped to appreciate some of the “above and beyond” work done by this guide and the cruise director in Amsterdam, with help from the hotel and unseen others — the hotel sent the passports by FedEx to Wurzburg, where they were reunited with us on the 26th! They had to be sent to one of the bus drivers who was going to take us on a tour. We had photocopies of the passports, so we had no trouble getting on the Emerald Sky (and the passports are not checked at any of the borders during the cruise).
We reached the Emerald Sky around 5:30 pm and were taken to our cabins with a glass of a refreshing welcome cocktail. We didn’t have to carry our suitcases, which were delivered to us. We had received our name tags in Paris, while others who joined in Amsterdam got theirs on the ship. We were frequently reminded not to use them on shore, as it was another giveaway to pickpockets that we were tourists.
Once underway, we had to participate in a mandatory evacuation drill, which was done with good humour.
Everything on the ship was branded “Emerald Waterways”, which is the brand used in the rest of the world. Australia, for some reason has “Evergreen Tours”.
There was wi-fi internet for all passengers, but as it was obtained through cell towers along the route, it was non-existent in places, upon which the satellite internet link was connected behind the scenes. As there were lots of people using one connection, it was rather slow to unusable at times. In locks, all internet connectivity was lost.
The flat screen TV was nice and there were about four English-language channels and many others in European languages, but movies were broken throughout the trip. The satellite TV reception was also dead while in a lock. Since the movies on offer were also mostly the same on the Singapore Airline flights, we didn’t mind this issue. The only channel that worked when TV was dead was the Bow Camera. It was a nice way to watch the river while lying in bed.
Different ships cope with a given problem differently. In mid-to-late June 2014, there was low water in the Main-Danube Canal. Some Viking and APT ships have a deeper draft, so they had to offload passengers at Bamberg and Nuremberg and bus them to a different ship at the other end. Packing/unpacking is always annoying and we could do without it.
Our ship MS Emerald Sky did not have any problem with the canal’s lack of water. Rain fell exactly when it was needed and our captain decided to take the ship all the way to Budapest.
Each night, we would receive a programme of events for the following day. Every morning a couple of A4 sized “newspapers” and a puzzle sheet was delivered all rolled up on the cabin’s door handle.
If you were keen, you might want to use the tiny gym or go for a swim in the ship’s pool, which converts to a movie lounge on some days.
We could have a light breakfast in the Horizon Lounge or the heavy one in the Reflections Restaurant. The heavy one had cold meats, bread, pastries, cereals, eggs to order, bacon, potatoes and so on.
We always had to collect a security card when leaving the ship and return it when we came on board. This enabled the crew to know if someone was still on shore. We did not lose any passengers.
The reception desk also had a map of the local town with important points highlighted by pen, such as the location of the ship and bus stop.
After breakfast, we would board a bus with a local guide (roughly five groups of 30 people each) and there was usually one group for “gentle walkers”. After about an hour of walking around, we would be given another hour or two to wander around on our own and then go back to the ship for lunch. Sometimes we would return to the same town after lunch or sometimes move to another port for another little tour.
We had a receiver with earphones to use most days and the guide had a transmitter. On 3-4 days the guide’s transmitter did not work, which was annoying, as 30 people could not crowd around him/her to listen to the commentary. Changing the battery did not fix it. This should have been tested the previous evening.
Each evening there was always a “Port Talk” session where the cruise director would brief us about any potential issues (such as the river levels) and about the next day’s programme. There would also be a daily joke or two and a lucky draw whose prize was usually a specialty of the next town.
Except for three days, dinner was usually a la carte. The menus are pre-set by management, so personal requests were not possible. A lady kept asking for bread pudding but was disappointed. If you didn’t want the fancy main courses, there was always a steak, chicken breast or fish selection every day and I used this option a lot.
Not enough regular fruit muesli was available for my liking – often two containers both filled with chocolate chip muesli! I would have liked to see the occasional curried dish – I am sure the Indonesian crew were getting some interesting dishes — perhaps a Rijsttafel would be appropriate in Amsterdam? The wines served at dinner were varied and from many continents (other than Australia). I mostly stuck to the reds and was not disappointed.
After dinner there might be a guest presenter from the local town. One evening the crew put on a variety revue (lots of talent there) and another night it was the turn of the passengers.
Without doubt, the castles, houses and cathedrals were fascinating. The scenery was amazing. Yes, after a week some of us were in a daze and could not recall what we had seen a few days earlier. There was a bit of steep walking, but mainly in the do-it-yourself activities. Each place had the usual souvenir shops but there were no annoying pickpockets or beggars (except in Paris).
The average age of the passengers was “retired for a while”. Fewer than 10% were from the workforce, including us. The slower walkers did not cause us any hold-ups and there was usually a separate walking group for them. One or two couples were perpetual whingers, but most were fine. Some kept to their groups while most were happy to mingle and sit with new people. There were one or two entertaining characters, whose presence actually helped to make the group more enjoyable.
The senior crew were mostly East European from Hungary or Romania. The hotel crew were mostly from Indonesia and all parts of Eastern Europe. On the rivers, the bridge communicates with land in German and further east (not our cruise) the language is Russian. This rules out English speakers in the bridge.
The hotel staff were very professional and impressed us. They were well trained and cohesive. We did not see any frayed tempers or grumpiness on their part. Overall, the captain had a well-run ship.
In a word, the trip was fantastic!
The meals were 5-Star; the cruise director was fantastic; the crew were great; housekeeping was fine; the ship was comfortable. Couldn’t fault it at all. It is important to note that this product is more of a cruise and less of a sight-seeing excursion. You can’t see any town in an hour or two of guided walks or bus tours, or in the subsequent hour or two of “free time”. For detailed sight-seeing, you need to travel on your own and stay as long as you need in each place.
June-July seems to be a good time to travel, at least it was for us. You can’t predict if there will be floods or a drought in Europe, but be prepared for some unexpected changes. We were lucky and hope you are too.